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Ten Word or Less Review: Ambitious, but sluggish.

When master filmmakers crawl out of the woodwork you have to pay attention, no matter how dismissive others may be.  Peter Weir is a slow and methodical worker, averaging about 2 or 3 movies a decade.  His last two efforts, The Truman Show and Master & Commander, are as fine as cinema can get.  Both are contemporary classics I fully expect to stand the test of time.  So it’s a damn shame that his latest effort, The Way Back, is such a monumental effort with very little payoff.

Set during World War II, The Way Back is the supposed true story of a handful of prisoners who escape from a Siberian prison.  Such a feat is achievement enough but then the prisoners commenced to walk 4000 miles, across Russia, Mongolia and the Himalayas, to get to Tibet in an attempt to escape the ever expanding grasp of communism.  That’s where the supposedly comes in.  Many have argued about the legitimacy of the story, but legitimacy be damned, it sounds great on paper.  But thrust to celluloid it’s just a lot of guys walking around for 130 minutes.

The cast is headed by Jim Sturgess, a young actor who has starred in a couple of films I’ve never been interested in seeing and after The Way Back I see no reason to seek them out.  Sturgess lacks much presence or charisma.  He’s a bland lead but the fault may not be entirely his.  While Colin Farrell and Ed Harris shine through their grime and deliver supporting parts that keep the film afloat, the rest is crippled by a screenplay that believes the events transpiring are enough to hold our attention.  Close but not quite.  The effort being put forth into this story is surely Herculean but there’s just no dramatic crutch or story tension to any of it.  Aside from Farrell and Harris the characters are never interesting and there’s very little interaction between these men as they march their miles.  At one point they meet a young girl who accompanies them on their journey and she notices that the men don’t talk to each other.  All I could do was nod in agreement.

This being a Peter Weir film one can’t dismiss the experience completely.  His dedication to meticulous detail and gorgeous photography are intact and he occasionally manages to ring an emotion or two out of the material.  He also successfully relays the since of frigidness and desperation the characters experience so well that I would recommend watching it with a coat on and a cup of coffee.  But beyond this too much of the story just doggedly plugs along like the walkers of the story.  It’s easy to see what drew Weir to the material; he’s often tackled subjects who find themselves on the edges of society.  But this time he couldn’t find a compelling reason to take us along with these guys on their journey.

I’ve made The Way Back out to be a rough experience but it’s not, it’s simply a marginal one.  If survival tales are your thing, or your a Weir fan, then Way Back could be a real treat.  There are elements to appreciate about it and it seems like a film that could eventually shine in a longer state.  Maybe Weir cut things to close to the bone?  I can’t say.  All I can say is that a master level movie maker put forth great ambition and came up short.  I’d rather see a guy try and fail than not try at all.

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